I am not one of those teachers that emphasize style over substance in student writing. In fact, I think that what often passes for "style" is actually just bad writing, no matter what the rhetorical situation. I discuss one disastrous kind of writing style in my article "AP English Blather," and in "Don't Let Me Catch You Writing from a Thesaurus!" I criticize another kind of bad writing that some people mistake for a sophisticated style.
Unfortunately, too many English teachers, especially in high school and junior high, encourage (or require) bizarre linguistic contortions from their students and then call such productions "style."
Generally speaking, students should aim first for
lucidity and correctness: everything they say should be absolutely clear, and it should be couched in sentences that obey the rules of grammar and usage.
But there is something beyond mere clarity and correctness that we have a right to require of our students, at least if they expect to earn a grade higher than a C. This "something more" is what comes under the rubric of
style. But how much more, and of what sort of stuff, should we require for a better than average grade?
First, there is the matter of diction, or word choice. College students should have a vocabulary sophisticated and supple enough to express complex ideas precisely and vividly. They should be able to draw on words that go beyond the most general level of reference, and they should have a deep enough vocabulary to avoid awkward and annoying repetition of words and phrases.
This does not mean that I recommend writing from a thesaurus (see the title of my article mentioned above) or that I think all repetition is bad. Sometimes repetition provides emphasis and rhetorical power to a writer's style, and sometimes repetition serves as a transitional marker to link ideas between sentences or paragraphs.
But repetition that occurs not for a purpose, but because the writer just doesn't know that many words, is a sign of stylistic weakness.
The writer also needs to have command of a wide variety of sentence structures, so that his prose has a varied and pleasing rhythm. Sentences should vary in length and structure, but not so much that the reader senses the writer laboring behind the prose. (I tell my students that they shouldn't let the reader see them sweat.)
The awkward echoing created by a limited or carelessly used vocabulary has its sentence-level counterpart in the tendency to use the same sentence pattern over and over again. Sometimes that is the simple bread and butter subject-verb-object structure displayed in an unrelieved series of simple or compound sentences. But sometimes even when varying his sentence structures, a student writer will "vary" them all in the same way. I had a student once that began every single sentence in a fairly long paragraph with a prepositional-gerund phrase: by doing this, without knowing that, from examining this, on trying that, in knowing this, by expecting that, through requiring this, after showing that, and so on. A subject-verb-object sentence would have been a relief in that repetitious series!
Most of the sentences in an essay will follow the subject-verb-object structure, because that is, after all, the natural structure of the English sentence. But some variety is called for, and it should sound natural, not forced. A student who does have sentence fluency will accomplish this rhythmic variation comfortably, and that is certainly an important aspect of style. I recommend that my students read their essays out loud to listen for their prose rhythm and to polish it if it is too choppy or monotonous.
Simplistic vocabulary and sentence structure will produce a "Dick and Jane" style that is not appropriate for college-level writing. A college student need not sound erudite, and certainly should not sound pompous and pedantic. But he should sound as if he is reasonably well educated and in command of the resources of his own language.
GRADING STANDARD: A college student should be held to reasonable standards of stylistic proficiency in his writing.